Art Month Installations: Thatcher’s Notorious Handbag Returns to Hong Kong

Pio Abad relocated from his native Philippines to the United Kingdom over 20 years ago, but in many ways, he never left. The artist maps history through objects, putting traces of his nation’s past into projects that bind the personal with the political.

His latest installation, at the 2017 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, is no exception. Not a Shield, but a Weapon will feature 180 replica handbags manufactured in a factory in Marikina, near Manila. Not just any handbag – Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, which was sold at a Christies’ charity auction in 2015 by former Conservative politician and convicted perjurer Jeffry Archer. Abad likes to explore the life, journeys, and historical resonance of inanimate things, and he is quick to note that it’s an interesting twist that the handbags will come to Hong Kong.

Abad’s show will be his second at Art Basel, which took over the Art HK fair five years ago and has played an integral role in the city’s rise in the global art market. When his work appeared in 2013, Abad says it was first time he started really engaging with the Asia-Pacific art scene, though his identity as British-Filipino artist has long been integral to his work. “Hong Kong is an interesting point of convergence between contexts,” he says. “There’s a sense of clarity that comes from being in in-between places.” Abad sees some parallels between Hong Kong’s transnational identity and his own experience as a UK-based artist weaving his Filipino background into his works.

Margaret Thatcher’s handbag sold at a Christies in 2015 – Photograph courtesy of  Pio Abad

The handbags are bespoke copies of Thatcher’s famously dour black leather Asprey, made in Marikina, a once thriving site of leather production that was hurt by trade restrictions in the early 1990s. The city has been struggling ever since. Abad was drawn to way the handbag functioned as a symbol of Thatcher’s terse, wasping and uncompromising style of leadership and negotation. The expression “being handbagged” has entered the English language as an expression to describe the experience of being treated ruthlessly or inconsiderately by a female authority figure.

Abad’s replica handbags are a clever comment on how far influence can travel in the free market world Thatcher fought so fiercely for – in part as means to promote their worldview as superior to that of their communist adversaries. Thatcher’s Asprey bag features in a photograph taken on a walk shared by Thatcher, former United States President Ronald Reagan and his dog, Lucky.

The connections Abad establishes between Marikina and Thatcher’s bag are part of his ongoing commentary on the effects of neoliberalism. By propagating deregulated capitalism, Thatcher envisioned a world in which competition was king and wealth trickled down from the top of the economic spectrum to the bottom, with little concern for those who stood to lose out from these policies.

This had the effect of “handbagging” many parts of the world like Marikina. Part of what Abad wants to explore is whether there might be a way to view economic systems beyond the binary of communism and neoliberalism. Is there a third path, and if so, what does it look like?

“You can never work with any assumptions about how history unfolds,” he says. “But the timetable of production for this work has been uncanny.” The show was first held at Glasgow’s CCA in June last year, around the time that the UK voted to leave the European Union. It will show in Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule. This is particularly relevant as Thatcher’s controversial negotiation style extends to how she handled Hong Kong’s return to China as prime minister.

“Not a Shield, but a Weapon” features 100 replica of Margaret Thatcher’s handbags – Photograph courtesy of Pio Abad

Abad’s native Philippines has also changed dramatically, with the rise of strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte. “These are very strange times,” he says. “I guess all over the world as well. Progressive politics is being replaced by populist movements and I’m not quite sure where that will take us.” The dread that colours Abad’s thoughts pervade the installation, which contains an absurdist dimension that verges on the carnivalesque.

“There’s always humour in my work,” he says, attributing this facet of his personality to his childhood growing up in the Philippines. As the son of a fearless student activist turned liberal government minister and prominent figure in the Aquino cabinet, the nation’s fraught political story has played front-centre in his life for as long as he can remember. “Sometimes you [have] to laugh,” he says.

One of Abad’s earlier works is a rather beautiful scarf that reflects on former first lady Imelda Marcos and a bizarre episode in which she fabricated the existence of primitive forest dwellers to impress Italian film star and photographer Gina Lollobrigida in the 1970s. The idea that facts can be stranger than fiction is key to the levity in Abad’s work, which helps lighten the often heavy topics he approaches.

Politics runs in the family. Abad’s mother, Dina, was active in politics, while his father Florencio (nicknamed “Butch”) was a human rights activist and trade unionist who fought against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marco. He was detained as a prisoner of conscience in 1978 and 1980.

“In my early to mid-20s, I tried to avoid engaging directly with Philippine politics – I didn’t want to be shoehorned into a limited context,” says Abad. He eventually realised that what made his work interesting were the specifics of his experiences as a Filipino-British artist with deep concern for his native country. “I never see my art as agitprop, a cultural product that is ideological,” he says.

Abad left the Philippines to study at the Glasgow School of Art in 2004, following in the artistic footsteps of his aunt, Pacita Abad, a renowned painter who experimented with novel textures and bold colours. Abad eventually moved to London to complete a master’s degree, and he still calls the city home, along with his wife, a jewellery designer.

Abad says that, while it’s always a good time to be an artist, today’s unraveling world of increasingly porous borders make art’s role particularly potent. Abad feels the need to address questions that arise around boundaries and multiculturalism, which compels him to work even on days when he feels defeated. “At the moment, it feels impossible to take a break [from politics],” he says, a statement that might relate to anyone watching global affairs unfold with increasing concern.

Making art helps, even if that art touches on the issues that cause him so much grief. “I make really intricate drawings, and as a process it’s a really interesting way to get away from the world – you can still get lost,” he says. “You can’t escape the world but there are moments you can get away.”

Not a Shield, but a Weapon can be seen at Art Basel from March 22-25, 2017. Pio Abad also has works on display in Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs, an exhibition at Para Site that explores how Asian art has transformed the world over the decades. It runs from March 18 to June 11, 2017. 

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